Ahead of the 2019 Comics Choice Awards at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City on Saturday night, comedians from across the continent who have been nominated in the Pan-African Award category have arrived in South Africa.
This year’s nominees are Uganda’s Anne Kansiime, Nigeria’s Basketmouth, Zambia’s Chingliz, and Zimbabwe’s Long John and Alfred Kainga.
The timing of their arrival is significant, following a week of xenophobic violence and the looting of mainly foreign-owned shops.
The unrest in South Africa has been met with reprisals, with the looting of SA-owned businesses in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Zambia and Madagascar, meanwhile, have pulled out of friendly soccer matches against Bafana Bafana.
The first question I asked the comedians was whether they hate us now as a result of the xenophobia.
“I can’t speak for anyone else but if I am to speak for myself, I actually feel disappointed in us as a people. Africans in general. We should all know better than to fight each other,” said Kansiime, a comedian and YouTube star.
“No we don’t hate you, we just hate that innocent people including South Africans have to die from this tragedy. I feel like we all need to realise that there is power in unity and we are all the same. One thing that I love about comedy is how it unites people around the world,” said Long John, who has been based in South Africa for several years.
Asked if there is a uniquely African form of comedy, Kansiime said yes. “We are very animated story tellers and it gives us a wonderful edge and truly sets our comedy apart.”
Zambia’s Chingliz agrees.
“When I am in Africa my material will have to be something Africans will understand, and if I go outside Africa I have to change my set to something they will understand as well, so I think every region has its own kind of humour,” he said.
I then asked how Africa has such a great sense of humour amid so many problems.
“Because there is really still so much to laugh about all around,” said Kansiime.
“Laughter is necessary for everyone, problems will always be there. We always have to find a way we can laugh at our problems,” said Chingliz.
Long John, meanwhile, highlighted the power of comedy to help people deal with their issues.
“In Zimbabwe we have this thing were we joke and laugh about our problems, we joke about hunger, the economy and other issues, so it’s better to laugh than to stress about it,” he said.
The Pan-African Award is a relatively new addition to the Comics Choice Awards, which have been going since 2011. The category was added in 2016.
“This award is made to a comic or comedy duo working outside South Africa who has done outstanding work to contribute to the elevation of comedy on the continent and globally. While there is only capacity for one award for Africa currently, plans are in motion to diversify this award in the future,” says the Comics Choice Awards website.
Comedy is growing in Africa, and there are thriving industries in areas such as Nigeria, Uganda and SA.
“Uganda actually has a very huge comedy industry,” Kansiime tells me.
“In fact, the Ugandan comedy industry is proving even more lucrative than music. There is literally a comedy show every day of the week.”
In Zambia and Zimbabwe, however, this isn’t the case.
“Our industry is very young and growing, it’s very challenging because there are not so many platforms, so the challenge comes in when you have to create the platform for others and for yourself because stage time is everything in comedy,” says Chingliz of Zambia.
“I come from a country where comedy was not taken seriously, it didn’t make sense for someone to make a living by making people laugh and with the economic situation in Zimbabwe,” says Long John.
“It was hard to convince people to pay to laugh. It took time but we are getting there,” he adds.
South Africa is also lucky to have freedom of speech, a right not shared by all the countries with nominees at the awards, although Kansiime says there are no restrictions in Uganda.
“We truly enjoy freedom of speech too in Uganda and comedians can get away with saying nearly anything because our president has a high sense of humour,” she says.
“However, the recent social media tax has definitely put a strain on us as performers,” she added.
In Zambia and Zimbabwe comedians aren’t as lucky.
“There’s freedom of speech, but there’s no freedom after speech, so basically it’s not there,” Chingliz says of Zambia.
“This has really affected the craft because you really want to stress something, but you really can’t just express it the way it’s supposed to be, so you are not really free to say anything,” he added.
“In Zimbabwe we can’t joke about politics, we will get arrested if we do, so as Zimbabwean comedians we have found a way to go indirectly and that ability of saying something but not really saying it makes us different,” said Long John.
The 2019 Comics Choice Awards take place at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City on September 7. Book at Computicket.